Alfonso Cuaron established his international reputation with his Mexican import from 2001 titled Y Tu Mama Tambien. Three years later, he sat in the director’s chair on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Many fans of J.K. Rowling’s books and movies believe Cuaron’s picture is the best of the series. In 2006, the Mexican-born auteur released the riveting Children of Men, based on the novel by P.D. James. Cuaron’s adaptation of James’ novel made several top ten lists that year, and this reviewer believes it to be one of the best films in the first decade of the Twenty-first century. Until Gravity came out last year, Cuaron had been silent in his cinematic output. Seven years spanned the time between Children of Men and the release of Gravity in 2013. Was it worth the wait? The answer is a resounding yes.
Gravity focuses on two astronauts in a life or death struggle to survive an orbiting debris field as they perform routine maintenance on the Hubble Space Telescope. This provides hair-raising suspense moments, which escalate with each subsequent encounter. In the midst of the suspense, the 3D cinematography immerses the viewer in the realm of space. The images of earth and space from the characters’ vantage point dazzle the mind and the eye. When one considers Steven Price’s hypnotic music score overlaying each scene, the sum total effect of the movie harrows the viewer. At some point, I kept thinking to myself, “I’m glad that mankind has ventured into space, but we have no business being up there.” Cuaron’s movie is a cinematic ride. It is a work of fiction, so I have no doubt in my mind that it fudges with aerospace details. Nevertheless, men and women belong on earth not in space.
Of course, Cuaron’s picture would mean very little if the characters had not been so believable. Sandra Bullock gives one of her best performances in her career as Dr. Ryan Stone, who must battle for her life in space. The irony of this particular point is that Dr. Stone confesses to Matthew Kowalski, played by George Clooney, that she has no reason to return home on earth. She enjoys the silence of space. In many ways, this admission by Dr. Stone indicates either her preference for silence or a preoccupation with lifelessness or death. An argument could be made that she is already dead even though she is alive. When one lacks the will to live, it is a mere formality when actual, physical death takes place. A lifeless soul is a dead one; therefore, physical death is a matter of time.
Clooney’s Matthew Kowalski character is lively and alive. He is the foil or counterpoint to Dr. Stone, who is morose and hopeless about existence. Through Kowalski, the viewer gains an appreciation for enjoying the moment in space without losing sight of the bigger picture: earth is home and that is the goal. His level-headed approach to life draws out of Dr. Stone the essence of who she is as a woman and as a person. During one of their conversations, Kowalski uncovers his colleague’s underlying anguish over her daughter’s tragic death due to a freak accident on a playground. It does not matter to Dr. Stone that this event took place four years ago. The significance of her admission is that it is a past event of death, which remains at work in her in the present. For the audience, we now understand her reason for the despair over her life.
After the initial encounter with the debris field, Kowalski rescues Dr. Stone and they head toward ISS in order to take the shuttle to the Chinese station for re-entry. Because of Kowalski’s ingenuity and street smarts, he realizes that they have ninety minutes to get into ISS before the debris field hits a second time. Kowalski uses the rest of the jet propulsion in his pack to get them to ISS; however, they approach with too much momentum, which leads Kowalski to release himself from the tether in order to save Dr. Stone’s life. While drifting out into space and to his certain death, Kowalski talks Dr. Stone through the steps to get inside ISS and execute the escape plan before the debris field hits. His voice serves as a beacon of hope for Dr. Stone.
In a key scene, Dr. Stone manages to enter ISS and strips off the space suit down to her tights. She curls into a fetal position much like a fetus inside a mother’s womb. Little does Dr. Stone realize that her rebirth has begun with her fight to stay alive. Much like a mother’s contractions or birth pangs, the movie continues the ebb and flow of near death and release after each successful attempt by Dr. Stone. When she reaches her lowest point, Dr. Stone resigns herself to her own death as she hears the birth of a child over the AM frequency. It is a telling moment as it reveals the exhilaration of new life and the finality of death. Dr. Stone prays for the ability to pray sort of like hoping against hope. She experiences a vision in response to her prayer wherein Kowalski comes to her aid in her time of need. God answers her prayer.
From here on out, Cuaron’s picture is a textbook example of blending the elements of allegory and realism in service of his story. Dr. Stone still has a life and death struggle on her hands, but she realizes the help provided to her by the angelic visitation in the form of Kowalski. Hope returns to her spirit as does life. One could argue that Dr. Stone has proceeded from death to life in a spiritual sense. Gone is the hopeless and despairing soul at the start of the picture. Now life, spiritual life, courses through her spirit and body, which invigorates her to face whatever comes her way as she heads to earth. When Dr. Stone boards the falling Chinese station, she braces herself for a crash landing. Oddly enough, the capsule ends up in a lake and sinks. What more could Dr. Stone possibly encounter?
In many ways, this final sequence cements the allegorical nature of the movie. The lake and the space module symbolize the womb and the birth canal. Will Dr. Stone come out alive and kicking? When Dr. Stone swims out of the module and reaches the surface, there is relief. She is alive, and the struggle played a key role in it. Once she swims to shore, the earth’s gravity is strong as she has been in space too long. Dr. Stone braces herself to stand and take her first steps, call them baby steps, into her new life as a result of her spiritual rebirth. The old Dr. Stone has died, and the new has come. She has crossed over from death to life. It is a triumphant ending, which grows out of the fierce fight to live. Cuaron’s movie is a masterpiece.